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Snowshoe History

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The use of snowshoes dates back over an incredibly long span of  human history. Archeologists have been unable to date the origin of either skis or snowshoes, but the best evidence suggests that the first device to serve as a foot-extender for easier travel over the snow was originated in Central Asia about 4000 B.C. Thus the snowshoe/ski is  ne of the oldest inventions of man, ranking in importance with the wheel.

Without the snowshoe/ski, aboriginal peoples would not have  been able to expand over, and occupy, the northern hemisphere.  Once this important contribution to technology had been made,  certain human groups began their northward migrations which eventually enabled them to move from a central point somewhere in  Asia into what are now known as Scandinavia, Siberia and the Americas. 

It is thought that Asia and the Americas were once joined by land at the place where the Bering Strait now separates the United States from the Soviet Union. It was then that the various predecessors of the American Indian and the Eskimo moved into the Americas. This eastward migration bridge apparently became the demarcation point between the use of snowshoes and skis for there is no good evidence that skis were ever used in North America by these aboriginal peoples, except among the Aleuts. The westward moving peoples, however, evidently favored the ski for, in the course of human history, skis became the favored means of transportation in northern Asia and Europe. Interchange between Asia and the Americas in the region of the Bering Strait evidently declined and these two human populations developed independently each with its own culture. Interestingly enough the snowshoe became a major part of the North American cultural heritage.

Indians, as distinguished from Eskimos, were the great innovators in snowshoe design. Indians tended to move into the forested temperate zone where snowshoes were an absolute necessity for getting around in wintertime. Eskimos, living in the polar regions, did not find snowshoes essential for they traveled mostly over sea ice or on the wind-packed snow of the tundra. Accordingly, snowshoes are not too often seen amongst Eskimo groups.

The Athapascan Indians of the American and Canadian west coast and the Algonquin Indians of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence River valley areas brought the snowshoe to the greatest peak of perfection. Starting with a basic bearpaw design, they introduced hundreds of variant patterns suited to all possible conditions. Before  the horse was reintroduced to America by the Spaniards, even the Plains Indians used snowshoes to hunt buffalo and it could be truly said that one common cultural characteristic of all the Indian tribes in any region where snow covered the ground in wintertime was the snowshoe.

Insofar as we know from the Norse sagas, the first white men to set foot in North America led by Leif Ericson around 1000 A.D. made no mention of snowshoes being used by the Indian groups they came upon. But there is no question that  snowshoe travel was well established at that time by Indians in Labrador and on Newfoundland. This is a curious omission in the otherwise detailed sagas. Probably the first white people to make extensive adaptation of the snowshoe were the French who began to move in and colonize the St. Lawrence River area in the 1600's. The French tended to intermingle freely with the Indians and they quickly learned how to make best use of the snowshoe in wintertime and canoe in summer. The great heroes of the French colonial period, d'Iberville, Le Moyen, Hertel de Rouville, de Nantel and many others, were experienced snowshoers. During the prolonged French and Indian War, the struggle between French and English for dominion in North America was almost swayed to the side of the French by their superior tactics and by the way they, with their Indian allies, used snowshoes as a tactical aid for making lightning raids on English settlements.

The Dutch and English, who tended to settle further south along the Atlantic coast, were not as successful as the French in learning from the Indians. These settlers did not as quickly assimilate Indian traits. One person who did learn well from the  Indians was Robert Rogers, who put his knowledge to good use as a scout for the English armies fighting on the borderlands. The famous 1758 Battle on Snowshoes near Lake George in the Adirondacks led military leaders to realize how significant snowshoes were in waging winter warfare. From that time on the English colonies, later to become the United States, made snowshoes part of their military forces' basic equipment. In the State Papers of Vermont, for example, there are several references to payments made to furnish the militia with snowshoes. During the great westward expansion period, snowshoes were equally as important as the axe and flintlock rifle in the zones where snow lay deep throughout the winter season. Trappers, hunters, explorers and surveyors in these areas found snowshoes to be indispensable.

Both the Indians and the white men in these times usually made their own snowshoes according to the patterns which had been defined by the Indians long before the white men came to North America. The making of snowshoes was a home industry for the most part, although certain people who had a particular knack for the craft probably made some snowshoes for sale or barter.

Indian groups maintained the lead in snowshoe manufacture and even now best and least expensive snowshoes are made in Indian communities. A good example of this industry is the little village of Indian Loretteville a short distance north of Quebec City where descendants of the Huron tribe still make an excellent product for sale in Canada and the United States


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